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In 1989, Silvano de Gennaro, a computer scientist at the Cern laboratory in Switzerland, decided to start a music festival that still runs to this day. He called it the Cern Hardronic Festival and invited the Cern community to get up on stage and showcase their talents. Little did he know that his festival would lead to the creation of a girl group whose picture would be the first personal photograph to be uploaded to the web.

Michele de Gennaro, who is now married to Silvano, remembers the first festival clearly. She was working as a bilingual secretary when a friend approached her about the show. Her friend planned to get Silvano to write a song to a particular physicist who she had her eye on, and wanted Michele to join her on stage. 

So Silvano wrote a song called Collider, about a lonely woman whose partner works long shifts at – you guessed it – the collider. Watch it here.

Unfortunately, the desired physicist never actually saw the performance, Michele says, since he was on shift. “It was a shame but we had a great time and we got a lot of attention from elsewhere,” she says. Thus was born Les Horribles Cernettes (a play on Cern’s Large Hadron Collider), a revolving group of female singers who donned big hair, vintage dresses, and sang songs about physics.

The iconic picture of the Cernettes, which nobody at the time realised would create a little bit of internet history (Credit: Silvano de Gennaro)

This parody group with big hairdos and dresses reminiscent of the 50s, doing song of physics. I thought ‘that’s fantastic’ - Lynn Veronneau

Lynn Veronneau, then a research administrator at Cern, remembers seeing the Cernettes for the first time at a festival on the campus. “I was there when these girls came on and I loved them!” she said. “This parody group with big hairdos and dresses reminiscent of the 50s, doing songs of physics. I thought ‘that’s fantastic’. I was studying opera at the time and I thought ‘I want to be in that band!’” A year later, she was one of the Cernettes.

One day, Michele, Lynn, and the other Cernettes members at the time, were backstage at a gig, make-up done, ready to go on, when Silvano appeared with a camera. “Okay girls, give me a shot for the album cover,’ he said. They posed, squatting together, with big smiles.

Tim Berners-Lee decided to create a webpage for all the social activities at Cern and he included the picture of the Cernettes (Credit: Blake Patterson/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Later, Silvano was working on the photo on his computer – editing out the messy background so it could be used for the album cover – when Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, walked into his office. When he saw the image, he told Silvano that he should make the Cernettes a website. “I hardly knew what the web was,” Silvano says. At the time his work involved running software on servers at Cern. “I wasn’t really working on it.” 

It was the photo that opened the web to life

Berners-Lee decided to create a webpage for all the social activities at Cern and he included the picture of the Cernettes on the page for the music club. This first version of the image was tiny by today’s standards; in those days, the web couldn’t handle large pictures. Silvano says that the image was probably 120 pixels by 50 pixels. “It was the size of a stamp and took about one minute to load on your screen.” Because they took so long to materialise, pictures didn’t load on the website automatically, you had to click on them to get the image to appear.  

The Cernettes' image was probably 120 pixels by 50 pixels and took about a minute to load (Credit: Alamy)

Although this photo of the Cernettes is commonly called “the first photograph uploaded to the internet” that’s not completely accurate. For starters, the internet existed before the web. And as the web was built for physicists to share data, that data often included scientific images. There were loads of images already on the web long before the Cernettes’ photograph made its way there. But the photo of the four women is the first non-technical picture uploaded to the web. The first picture that was simply a photo for fun, not work. “It was the photo that opened the web to life,” says Silvano. 

It was the size of a stamp and took about one minute to load on your screen

Lynn didn’t realise until about five years ago that the photo had a special place in history. Even then she says she didn’t really understand what the big deal was. “I was starting a big musical project and I remember having this conversation with our publicist at the time, who said, ‘oh my god that’s a piece of history, we’ve got to put that in your bio.’” Now, Lynn embraces her part of history. “I can tell my friends and family I was incredibly privileged to accidentally be in the first picture uploaded,” she says.  

When I asked Michele if she had any sense that the photo they were taking would become iconic she laughed. “No of course not, no my goodness.” But she says that, like Lynn, she now appreciates being a part of history.

Hundreds of millions of personal photos are uploaded to the web every day but there had to be a first (Credit: iStock)

We look so beautiful and wonderful in that picture. I love it

Today, the Cernettes are scattered across the globe. Michele and Silvano live in Mauritius, where Michele is a pilates instructor. Lynn is a professional musician, who tours the world with her jazz band. Angela Higney, the Cernette on the left in the photo now lives in Glasgow and works as a vocal coach. Collete Marx-Nielsen, the woman in the silvery sequin dress, lives in France. In 2012, the original four Cernettes reunited at Cern, and were joined by a whole group of later Cernettes for a concert; Lynn says she was blown away by how excited people were. “The response at the reunion concert was overwhelming. It was huge, there were so many people who came and there were a lot of people online – we webcast it and over 2000 people logged in.”

This is something very special about that first photo of the Cernettes, says Michele. “It was maybe one of the first bands on the internet. We look so beautiful and wonderful in that picture. I love it.”

Correction: This article has been edited to reflect the difference between the web and the internet.

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